What is Truth? (On the Nature and Importance of Truth Today)

by Douglas Groothuis

Have you ever been told that truth is relative? That it’s all based on language and context? That it’s only what a culture believes to be real? Dr. Groothuis tackles these issues and more as he answers the question, “What is truth?”

“Truth is so obscured nowadays, and lies so well established, that unless we love the truth, we shall never recognize it.” — Blaise Pascal

Staring Truth in the Face

“Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” Jesus Christ made this statement after Pontius Pilate had interrogated him prior to the crucifixion (John 18:37, NIV). Pilate then famously replied, “What is truth?” and left the scene.

As philosopher Francis Bacon wrote in his essay “On Truth”:

“What is truth?” said jesting Pilate; and would not stay for an answer.

Although Jesus made no reply to Pilate, Christians affirm that Pilate was staring truth in the face, for Jesus had earlier said to his disciple Thomas, “I am the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6).

This historic exchange raises the perennial question of the very nature of truth itself. What does it mean for a statement to be true? Or, to put it another way: What does it take for a statement to achieve truthfulness?

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This has been a subject of much debate in postmodernist circles, where the traditional view of truth as objective and knowable is no longer accepted. Many even outside of academic discussions may be as cynical about truth as Pilate. “What is truth?” they smirk, without waiting for an answer. Postmodernist philosopher Richard Rorty claimed that truth is what his colleagues let him get away with. [1] Unless we are clear about the notion of truth, any claim to truth — religious or otherwise — will perplex more than enlighten.

Before attempting to determine which claims are true, we need to understand the nature of truth itself. I will briefly argue for the correspondence view of truth and then pit it against two of its main rivals, relativism and pragmatism.

Truth and Correspondence

The correspondence view of truth, held by the vast majority of philosophers and theologians throughout history, holds that any declarative statement is true if and only if it corresponds to or agrees with factual reality, with the way things are. The statement, “The desk in my study is brown,” is true only if there is, in fact, a brown desk in my study. If indeed there is a brown desk in my study, then the statement, “there is no brown desk in my study,” is false because it fails to correspond to any objective state of affairs.

The titanic statement, “Jesus is Lord of the universe,” is either true or false. It is not both true and false; it is not neither true nor false. This statement either honors reality or it does not; it mirrors the facts or it does not. The Christian claims that this statement is true apart from anyone’s opinion…

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